What is the preferred terminology in addressing a disabled person?

The correct terminology used to address a disabled person can be used as a powerful tool to facilitate change and bring about new values, attitudes, and social integration.

Compiled by Tarren Bolton

Condensed from ‘Disability Definitions, Models and Terminology – Western Cape Government

Language reflects the social context in which it is developed and used. It therefore reflects the values and attitudes of that context and plays an important role in reinforcing values and attitudes that lead to discrimination and segregation of particular groups in society. This is particularly true for people living with a disability.

While there are varying preferences regarding disability terminology, there are some terms which should never be used as they are not respectful of disabled people. We bring you a list of appropriate terms to use and provide some practical guidance and explanation for terms no longer in use, as well as the recommended alternative.

SA examples of the preferred terminology

According to the Western Cape Government’s Disability Definitions, Models and Terminology publication (2022), the definition and classification of disabled persons has gone through a number of changes over the centuries.

Although some disabled people prefer the terms ‘physically challenged’ or ‘differently abled’, these should not generally be used. The disability rights movement of South Africa accepts both the terms ‘disabled person’ and ‘people with disabilities’.

The publication states that one should avoid terms like ‘suffers from,’ ‘afflicted with’ or ‘victim of’, all of which cast disabilities as a negative. ‘Suffers from’ indicates ongoing pain and torment, which is no more the case for most people with disabilities as it is for most people without disabilities. ‘Afflicted with’ denotes a disease, which most disabilities are not. ‘Victim of’ implies that a crime is being committed on the person who has a disability.

Do not use ‘wheelchair-bound’ or ‘confined to a wheelchair’. People see their wheelchairs as a convenient mode of transportation, not prisons, and the ‘bound/confined’ phrase belies the fact that many people with motor disabilities engage in activities without their wheelchairs, including driving and sleeping. The proper phrase is ‘uses a wheelchair’. Wheelchair users may not view themselves as ‘confined to’ a wheelchair – try thinking of it as a mobility aid instead.

Use ‘disability’ not ‘handicap.’ The word ‘handicap’ derives from the phrase ‘cap in hand’, referring to a beggar, and is despised by most people with disabilities. Other terms to avoid are ‘physically/mentally challenged’ (who isn’t?) ‘cripple’ or ‘crippled.’

Use ‘able-bodied’ or ‘people without disabilities.’ The terms ‘normal’ and ‘whole’ are inappropriate and inaccurate.

Most disabilities are not a disease. Do not call person with a disability a ‘patient’ unless referring to a hospital setting. In an occupational and physical therapy context, ‘client’ or ‘customer’ is preferred.

Interestingly, the term ‘hearing impaired’ is no longer in use. Deaf people are proud of their identity as a cultural and linguistic group and do not see it as an impairment, so the correct term to use when referring to them is ‘deaf’. People who consider themselves as part of Deaf culture refer to themselves as ‘Deaf’ with a capital ‘D’. Because their culture derives from their language, they may be identified in the same way as other cultural groups, for example ‘Shangaan’. Never use the terms Deaf-mute or Deaf and Dumb.

Avoid ‘deformed,’ ‘deformity’ and ‘birth defect’. A person may be ‘born without arms’ or ‘has a congenital disability,’ but is probably not defective.

Use ‘person with Down syndrome.’ Avoid ‘Mongol’ or ‘mongoloid.’

Avoid ‘mentally retarded’, ‘insane’, ‘slow learner’, ‘learning disabled’ and ‘brain damaged’. Use ‘person with an intellectual disability’, or ‘person with a psychiatric disability’.

Avoid ‘cerebral palsied’ and ‘spastic’. Use ‘person with cerebral palsy’.

Use ‘person with epilepsy’ or ‘child with a seizure disorder’. Avoid ‘epileptic’, either as noun or adjective.

Avoid ‘dwarf’ or ‘midget’. Some groups prefer ‘little/short’, but its best to use ‘person of short stature’.

Use ‘man with paraplegia’ or ‘she has quadriplegia’. Avoid ‘paraplegic’ or ‘quadriplegic’ as either a noun or adjective.

Negative and patronising language produces negative and patronising images. Words are important, so make sure your words do not offend or reinforce negative stereotypes.

Acknowledgements:

  1. https://www.westerncape.gov.za/general-publication/disability-definitions-models-and-terminology
  2. Patricia Digh of Real Work Group cited in the DPSA (Disabled People South Africa) ‘A Pocket Guide on Disability Equity’.

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